2001: Helmstetter: USGA, R&A will agree some day

Carlsbad, Calif.

Golfers always are asking: “What will golf clubs look like in the future?”

Following the death of Ely Callaway, let’s explore this question. After all, it was Callaway Golf’s Big Bertha driver that changed the worldwide perception of what golf clubs should look like. Many driver heads in today’s post-Bertha world are larger than 300 cubic centimeters, or roughly twice the size of the average driver in the late 1980s, before the introduction of Big Bertha. Richard C. Helmstetter is Callaway Golf’s senior executive vice president of research and development. When it comes to the future of golf clubs, he has more opinions than Tiger Woods has birdies.

First things first: What about reports that Callaway is using a process called metal injection molding to develop a driver?

“It’s called MIM for short,” Helmstetter explained. “What they do is take metal powders and mix them with liquid plastic. We pursued that in 1996 and 1997. It didn’t work, so we abandoned it. We were all over the place – in Germany, Sweden, Australia – working on it.”

Now Golfweek has a new insight into the future of Callaway drivers: What about indications that Callaway is working with a leading graphite shaft manufacturer to produce a driver head made of composite material?

“I won’t deny it. I won’t confirm it,” Helmstetter answered. “It’s too early to say anything. I don’t like to comment on possible future products.”

Yonex is the golf equipment manufacturer most readily identified with composite driver heads. The company started selling these drivers in the late 1980s in the United States, and several touring pros, including Phil Mickelson and Scott Hoch, used them with great success in the 1990s.

Yonex eventually moved from composite – a term that is shorthand for graphite and associated materials – to titanium. Still, the drivers were popular at one time.

For Callaway, the advantage of a composite head would be the light weight of the material. A driver head weighs about 200 grams, and designers want to be able to move this weight around.

“If you have to use all 200 grams just to get the structure, then the shape dictates the inertia properties and the launch conditions,” Helmstetter said. “If you can use only 100 grams of material and make it strong enough, then you’ve got another 100 grams you can use to tune the launch conditions.”

Looking into his crystal ball, Helmstetter sees other developments in the future:

Callaway will win its battle over driver limits with the U.S. Golf Association. “I am completely optimistic,” he asserted. “In all the examples I am aware of, the technically improved product eventually became the rule. They never went back. In every instance, whichever side was arguing for the advanced technology eventually prevailed.”

The USGA driver limit of .830 coefficient of restitution, in effect since 1998, will be left in the dust by clubmakers. Golfweek has observed tests that measured the COR of Callaway’s ERC II driver at about .860. Helmstetter says his company has a .918 driver in Japan. He admits it probably wouldn’t hold up to high swing speeds, but he says new materials are around the corner. (See Golfweek’s guide to COR.)

New clubhead materials are a given. “We have been following after the space program in golf club design,” Helmstetter said. “The materials that were invented to put people on the moon have come back to Earth in available technology. Most of those materials were lightweight, very strong and very stiff. I think we’ve just about used them up. Sometime in the next five, 10 or 15 years, we will find other materials that will be lightweight, even stronger but not as stiff.”

High COR won’t be the whole story. “To hit a really good drive,” Helmstetter outlined, “you need four things: good launch angle, good backspin, good ball speed and good forgiveness. COR by itself gives you only one of those four, which is ball speed. It’s up to the designer to provide the rest. There needs to be more than a pinpoint on that clubface for (the sweet spot).”

As a result, the size of driver heads will continue to increase as materials allow the expansion. Thus Helmstetter’s famous quote: “If drivers get as big as Volkswagens, they’re probably too big.”

New shaft materials will appear. “It is entirely possible,” Helmstetter said, “that these materials will be as different as graphite was to steel or steel to hickory.”

The shape of irons will change. This may be true of woods as well. “Irons definitely will look different,” he predicted. “We have made dramatic improvements in irons (in the past decade), and I see more of that. I see golfers changing irons depending on the conditions in which they are playing.”

Finally, Helmstetter envisions a new wedge, but it would violate the existing rules. “If you’ve got the yips, you can go to a long putter,” he said. “You can clamp that thing to your Adam’s apple or wherever you want. Well, people have the yips with wedges, too. I’d like to build them a long wedge – from the fringe, or 10 feet off the green, a golfer could clamp in and get rid of those chili dips and that decel (deceleration) and that yippy move with the wedge.

“What’s wrong with that? I’d like to make a face-balanced, center-shafted wedge.”

And you were wondering why Callaway Golf produced such creative products.

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